The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

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Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #21

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Prayer of Plain and Simple Praise (A Paraphrase of Psalm 135)

There is only One in this universe who deserves our adoration—You, LORD. Your name ought to be featured on every flag, inscribed on every banner, stamped on every endeavor we undertake here on planet earth. You deserve to be praised by each of us who are Your servants, Your children, Your people freed from the terrible bondage of sin.

For You are good. Every intention of Your heart, every word of Your mouth and every action You take is wholly good and will bring complete and ultimate good to those who love You, LORD. We praise You.

You are great. You are the only uncreated Being—existing without beginning or end, unparalleled in Your position of supremacy. All creatures will one day bow before You. We praise You.

You are powerful. You are able to accomplish anything You intend; Everything You created on earth, in sky and sea is for Your pleasure. What better reason for us to exist, and what is more fitting than to say we praise You?

You are personally involved in each of our lives. Nations rise and fall according to Your ultimate plan to bless humanity through Your Son, Jesus Christ. We praise You.

You are loving and compassionate. Your mercy and grace are released into the lives of those who welcome Your presence. One day Your justice will finally wash over this earth and bring all things wrong to right. We praise You.

Until then, You patiently watch as people create their own gods outs of whatever they value most—anything they think will satisfy their pursuit of pleasure. Those gods are no more truly alive than the people who hope in them. They are nothing more than hollow, empty shells about to topple, taking their subjects down with them.

But You, LORD, stand firm and dependable, supporting, strengthening, and giving solid hope to those who bow only to You. There is nothing truer than for us to say, plain and simply, “We praise You!”

 

(Photo Credit: Sunset over the Vercors mountains, seen from Grenoble. By © Guillaume Piolle /, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4994157)

PIGMANIA

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Pigs have become as good as gold. The goddess Demeter demands them on her altars, the prevalent Greek and Roman cultures happily acquiesce to the ritual feasts, and local farmers are willing to plunge their hands into the proverbial pot of profit. Popular spirituality is like that: it caters to disguised pleasures. The trouble is, the Jewish community has been distinctly forbidden to eat or touch these ‘unclean’ animals, according to the Torah, never mind be involved in supporting pagan worship rituals. So when Jesus enters the scene in the remote Gadarene area east of the Sea of Galilee, he is stepping on rocky ground. This is pig-farming territory, and the locals don’t want to hear any moralizing from zealous Jews. It’s like inviting yourself onto a grow-op and asking to have a look around to set up your picnic; the locals are not going to be happy about it.

When Jesus proceeds to exorcise a regiment of demons from the unhappy local madman (see July 18/14 posting) He is making a unilateral decision: He is evicting them from their human host and authorizing the devilish spirits to transfer their accommodation to the herd of local pigs. It makes sense, really. The pigs are putting on pounds just waiting for the day they will nod their heads[1] to become fodder for the Greek gods. Perhaps Jesus is making a subtle point that worship of gods other than the true God is demon’s territory. One is fitting for the other.

Suddenly, the pigs rush headlong into the sea in a mad fit of uncontrollable abandon, and the locals are not happy. In fact, we’re told that when the townspeople see the ‘madman’ dressed and his right mind, they’re response is fear. They are afraid of One who can cure a madman of his madness. They sense His power exceeds that of the Greek gods; like the demons, they are afraid Jesus will demand more of them than they are prepared to give. So they do what many of us have done when we sense Jesus is a little too close for comfort: they ask Him to leave.

We’ve done that too, haven’t we? There have been times we’ve sensed that if we submit to Him in this or that area of our lives He’s going to turn things upside-down on us; nothing will be the same. We’re afraid He’s going to spoil the profit, take away the pleasure, or make us feel guilty about some of our behaviours. So we ask Him to leave. We shut our ears to His words; we close our eyes to perceiving His presence. We breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve escaped.

The amazing thing is that Jesus doesn’t force His presence on anyone. Having returned the willing ‘madman’ to his right senses, Jesus leaves the remaining townsfolk in their chosen pigsty. Everyone ultimately gets what he or she asks for. It must sadden Him immensely to see that only one person there in Gadara is willing to be healed mind-and-soul this day, but it is how the people want it.

This anecdote is not just a chronological event in the life of Jesus. It’s historical, yes, but it’s much more than that. It contains within it a living message for you and me today. It’s an invitation. Jesus is stepping out of His boat onto the shore of each of our lives right now. He’s standing, sensing the needs each of us have in the deepest depths of our soul. Many of us, like the masses, will react in fear. We’ll push Him away, and He’ll respect that. We’ll lose the greatest opportunity that this day will ever bring us. Or, we can be the one-in-a-hundred that senses He is our only hope – that beats the odds of our stubborn will and humbles ourself before Him.

“Stay, Jesus. Do for me what only You can do. I’ve had enough of pigmania.” A prayer like that is all it will take to begin to replace our pop-culture spirituality with worship of the true and living God.

 

[1]Greek sacrificial ritual included pouring water on the pig-victim’s head, causing it to ‘nod’ its head in agreement with its imminent sacrifice on the altar.